Could You Be the Next Cornelius Vanderbilt? Book Review: The First Tycoon

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles (Knopf, 2009)

T. J. Stiles has taught at Columbia University and held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his work on The First Tycoon.

Biographies generally fall into two categories: exciting or boring. The First Tycoon is riveting.

Vanderbilt may be the most-driven, power hungry, greedy, and downright ruthless businessman who has ever lived. And in the process of being so, he destroyed monopolies owned by aristocrats, essentially paved the way for the modern American corporation, and brought progress to not just New York, but America at large. He even helped win the Civil War for the Union, and through guiding military operations ensured that his businesses could operate in Nicaragua (pg. 299, 343). The ironic part: As Vanderbilt toppled monopolies, he gladly became one, several times over.

With very little hesitation, Vanderbilt would switch between businesses (buying and selling at will), all the way up until his death. Upon reflecting on his life, it appears that he rarely (if ever) feared change: He left his steamboat empire for railroads at age seventy (pg. 335). And he was so successful as a railroad tycoon that he was dubbed the Railroad King (pg. 438).

The Commodore, as Vanderbilt was also known as, is essentially unrivaled in history in terms of acumen. But Stiles is far from admiring of Vanderbilt—he isn’t even a little envious. Instead, he is honest. Vanderbilt’s personal life was a mess, and he seems to have been miserable for much of it (pg. 155). Many of the things Vanderbilt did are illegal today, and although they were legal in his time, they were ethically questionable even in his own era. And the way he treated his own family was deplorable. At the end of it all, his angry heirs fought over his empire in a two year courtroom battle (pg. 561).

But there is something you have to respect about Vanderbilt: he always knew when to get out and when to make a change. He saw everything as an opportunity—no matter how bad. He sought progress and was willing to compete (always), and most of the time, it benefited the customer. And he made his own way. To call him an opportunist would be an insult; he was a business predator. Stiles reflects on 1852, one of Vanderbilt’s most successful yet most difficult years, at one point in the book saying: “Vanderbilt acted as he always had, both creating wealth and punishing his enemies. … Vanderbilt was a paradox—both a creator and a destroyer. From his own perspective, he was simply the victor” (pg. 222).

Vanderbilt considered himself a man who lived by a code of honor. And he certainly sought diplomacy before battle, but his strong will made those around him see very little of his supposed code. It seems that from Vanderbilt’s perspective, he was always in the right. Even when he lost a business battle, which he lost several, he would usually declare the winner to be a cheat. He would then promptly expose them as such (pg. 237).

The lessons in this book are too many to count. The most important one: You could be a Vanderbilt of this age—he really wasn’t that special. This tycoon was a poor writer, yet singularly focused—on profit (pg. 421). But you too have to be willing to sacrifice absolutely everything for the sake of business, and be willing to do anything. Is it worth it?

Lambert Wardell, Vanderbilt’s personal clerk, once reflected: “This was one of the secrets of [Vanderbilt’s] success. He never underrated himself nor anybody else“ (pg. 253). If you want to understand Vanderbilt, remember that line, and you will.

This book weighs in at a whopping 2.2 pounds in paperback (according to Amazon.com). And it could have used an editor. The back story to Vanderbilt’s life is fascinating—you learn all about American history, pre- and post-Civil War, and the inception of industrialism and all its perils—but some of it could have been cut. Perhaps an abridgment is the answer. 4 stars.

 

(I purchased and read this book as part of Logos Bible Software’s “Read for Cash” program. The links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you purchase it via one of these links, I do get a small amount from Amazon, but the publisher and/or the authors in no way influenced my review.)

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